An Enviable Problem: Dutch Bike Lanes Are Overcrowded

Everyday cycling has become so popular in the European country that their sprawling bike path networks can’t keep up.

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Photo by FietsBeraard

A typical Dutch commute. Photo by FietsBeraard.

When many people think of urban cycling, they think of the Netherlands. Bikes are so popular in the European country that “bike culture” has almost become synonymous with Amsterdam. But according to a report by the Dutch SWOV Institute for Road Safety, everyday cycling has amassed such a crowd of regular participants that the bike lanes are getting, well, crowded.

While the sprawling, connected networks of bike lanes in the Netherlands are the envy of urban cyclists from other parts of the globe, they remain insufficient to accommodate the growing numbers of people using them every day. At rush hour, the lanes are overcrowded and crashes are becoming more frequent.

According to the report, some of these collisions are the result of poor decision-making and riding habits among riders. The SWOV set up cameras at four major bike lane intersections in the Hague, and the footage revealed a variety of unsafe behaviors. Around 20% of riders were observed using their phones while riding, 80% pulled out of a lane to overtake without shoulder checking, and a full 5% were observed cycling in the wrong direction the lane. It is this behaviour mixed with swelling crowds, the report notes, that lands around 1,000 riders in the hospital each year because of collisions with other people on bikes. When you take into consideration that over 700,000 trips are made by bike per day in the Netherlands, that number is a little less alarming. However, 1,000 crashes is still 1,000 too many.

The problem is an interesting one to have. In an odd sense it is almost enviable for bike advocates in other countries where trying to convince people to hop on two wheels can feel like pushing a boulder up a hill. The decades-long push for better biking in the Netherlands has been so successful that cyclists are now fighting for space in the lanes. But where it is a triumph for advocates, it signifies that much work is left to be done by planners and policy-makers to keep up with the demand.

In the 1970s, when the push for safer streets in the Netherlands began in earnest, authorities were receptive. By the 198os, most major cities had a strategic plan to improve cycling safety. Fast-forward to today, and the country now boasts 22,000 miles (35,405 km) of bike paths. However, with over a quarter of daily trips made by bicycle nationwide (rising to 38% in Amsterdam and an astounding 59% in the university City of Gronigen), the current infrastructure still falls short of what is required.

According to Amsterdamize‘s Mark Van Woudenburg, despite cycling’s popularity, the propensity of urban planners to prioritize cars remains persistent. With a 38% modal share in Amsterdam, cyclists are still only allotted 11% of the space on the roads.

While curbing bad bicycling behavior needs to be one part of the solution to reduce injury on the roads, planners and policy makers also need to continue the momentum that made The Netherlands into the world’s greatest cycling nation by widening the roads, expanding the networks and giving the people on bikes the space they need to safely travel. Many North American bike advocates preach an “if you build it they will come” philosophy towards increasing cycling’s modal share through bike infrastructure. But in this case, the philosophy is reversed. The cyclists are already here, so build the lanes.

Hilary Angus is the Online Editor at Momentum Mag. @HilaryAngus


  • Wim

    Eventhough the text in the picture is Dutch, based on the number plate visible the picture is from France. And if not, the road signs viisible certainly are not Dutch.

    Being Dutch and a cyclist myself in the second largest town of The Netherlands (Rotterdam) I feel and think the article falsely creates the impression that there is a cycle congestion problem. There isn’t. Yes, at rush hours you be slowed down some times at some locations. But at worst that will set you back a mere few seconds or at worst less than 5 minutes a day.

    As to the accidents mentioned. Yes! Mobile phones are a problem. Now there is a law in progress to ban phoning while cycling. There also is a problem with elderly starting to bbike again on electric bikes. But, I assume, that will decrease over time when electric bikes are more common. Also light mopeds (25kph) are fairly new as well. Discussed is whether these mopeds should be allowed in the cycle paths. This discussion is still going on. Concerning normal mopeds (45kph), at many places they are banned from the cycle paths.

    Lastly, as to the 1,000 injured each years, this includes a visit to the emergency ward to attend sprained wrists as well.

    Concluding, as a rule, cycling in The Netherlands is enjoyable and certainly save compared to all other modes of personal transportation.

  • Alois

    The photograph is not from the Netherlands, but from Denmark instead. Cycle paths are never painted blue but always red in the Netherlands.

  • Ant

    That’s the problem with shunting bicyclists off onto segregated paths instead of letting them mix with the rest of traffic.

  • Leslie Wilson

    It’s been awhile since I was last in Amsterdam (The Netherlands). I’m not griping about the roads being too crowded. However, what I will gripe about is what I perceive to be inadequate bicycle parking. Oh, there was plenty of bicycle parking. It’s just that there were more bicycles than available parking. At train stations and shopping areas, the bicycles were so densely packed that I couldn’t figure out how to retrieve a bicycle in some parts of the parking area.

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